Editor's note: Sheryl Estrada is an HR Dive reporter. If you're new to the field (or just want to refresh your methods), follow along with Talent Textbook as she offers her opinions, interviews experts and explores the fundamentals of talent management and acquisition. She can be reached at [email protected]
An important part of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is understanding the value that individuals with disabilities bring to any team.
Celebrations are already taking place for the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the civil rights law that bars discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The law paved the way for groups of workers that faced barriers to enter the workforce in higher numbers. Frank Kineavy, for example, my colleague at a former job, has cerebral palsy. He uses a specially designed keyboard to communicate and write articles with the aid of a scribe and his journalistic work ethic is one to be emulated. In his spare time, Kineavy wrote a screenplay with professor Stephen McWilliams, his disability advisor at his alma mater Villanova University, which was featured on the local news.
But research shows that individuals with disabilities are frequently an untapped talent pool. I asked Carlos Cubia, vice president at global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), for his thoughts on this, as the company appears to be making strides.
Walgreens was recognized in July 2019 for earning a top score of 100% on the Disability Equality Index (DEI) for the third consecutive year. The DEI is a national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices related to disability inclusion and workplace equality.
"The environment out in the marketplace shows that the highest demographic of individuals that are unemployed are people with disabilities," Cubia told me in a phone interview. Yet, individuals with disabilities "bring innovation and creativity to the workforce," he said.
A study released by the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability Feb. 25 found that the national disability employment rate ticked up in 2020.
Walgreens committed to providing job opportunities for people with disabilities and a positive work environment, Cubia said, long before he stepped into his role three years ago, but he works to continue the directive, globally. The company's two programs, the Transitional Work Group (TWG) and Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative (REDI), are making a difference, Cubia said.
Walgreens 'accepts me for who I am'
At least one former program participant — now a Walgreens employee — speaks highly of the initiative. Kyle Hahn, who has attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, arrived at Walgreens through TWG. The 13-week program, initiated more than 10 years ago, partners with state agencies and local nonprofits to identify job candidates and provides orientation curriculum and on-the-job training and job coaching. The program is an "opportunity to learn a new environment, different functions that you may never have seen before in a company like ours," Hahn told me via email. "There are some functions that are easy to master and you've got team members who can help you."
This year, Hahn will celebrate 12 years of employment at Walgreens. "I still remember the day I was hired," he said. "I was really excited about it. I was jumping around the house. This was my first job ever." Hahn works on unloading delivery hauls, tagging deliveries and prepping products for store shipment. "Now, I train team members in functions they've never done before. I know almost all the functions in our distribution centers," he said.
In discussing Walgreens' culture, Hahn said his managers and co-workers are supportive. "One of my challenges is that I sometimes get stressed, especially when I'm adjusting to new bosses," he said. "But I love my managers. My co-workers are great to work with and they help me out. I feel like Walgreens is like a second home to me."
Hahn said the company accepts his authentic self. "I'm most proud of serving our stores, [and] working with my colleagues, with disabilities and without disabilities," he said. "I feel proud of working for a great company that accepts me for who I am and trusts me to do the job right and to get it done."
Contributing to the bottom line
Walgreens has nine distribution centers and regional warehouses in the U.S. running the TWG initiative, as of Aug. 31, 2019, and about 14% of employees at Walgreens distribution centers and regional warehouses self-identified as an individual with a disability as of the end of the fiscal year.
Walgreens believes individuals with disabilities have a lot to offer, including a tendency to outperform their co-workers, Cubia noted. "The productivity that we've seen that comes from some of those workers has been higher than folks without disabilities," he said. "That's not a scientific study, just anecdotal and just watching folks that are productive, have almost zero absenteeism, almost zero turnover; that group has produced in a way that we never imagined."
Recent research appears to support Cubia's belief. A 2018 Accenture report produced in partnership with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities found that companies with best practices for employing and supporting workers with disabilities outperformed their peers. Between 2015 and 2018, companies that offered the most inclusive working environment for employees with disabilities achieved an average 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins than their industry peers.
Cubia said Walgreens, which, "in the U.S. has over 225,000 [employees], and worldwide nearing 430,000," has been approached by major companies and politicians wanting to replicate the TWG and REDI programs. "We're excited, but that's not to say we've overcome the challenge of employing people with disabilities because that's still something that we struggle with," he said. "But it's a good stride and a good move in the right direction and one that we're very happy and very proud of." The company is "continuing to try and evolve to the point where we can make a significant difference in the marketplace," he added.
Companies are placing an emphasis on D&I these days, along with employment branding and social responsibility. Sourcing and hiring individuals like Hahn, who is passionate about his job and his company, can only further enhance their mission.